How did you find your cast—Muatasem Mishal, who plays the devout young American Muslim Daud, as well as all the neighborhood kids he encounters? How was it working with so many kids?
One of the inspirations for the making of this film was an interest to learn more about Islam. It dominated our newscasts on a daily basis at the time but usually with negative, one-dimensional perspectives. I knew there was more to it so I spent a year volunteering in Bay Ridge, predominantly a Muslim, Palestinian neighborhood. I started off teaching English to immigrant women but eventually over the summer, helped in assisting a youth group for kids of the community. Muatasem Mishal (Daud) was this ten-year-old kid from the youth group at the Arab American Association where I volunteered. He had this glowing energy to him with green eyes that were completely enveloping. He had never acted before other then some school plays but I had a feeling that film would only enhance this special quality of his.
The kids from the softball scene were a mix of kids from the neighborhood and ones I cast through an agency. I think it created an interesting mix of characters showing the diversity of Brooklyn.
Working with kids takes a lot of patience and sometime yelling to get their attention. As a director I would talk to them less intellectually and more like a teacher or a friend. Ideally I just wanted them for the most part to be themselves. Daud, I would discuss with him on a more emotional level so he could nail some of the more intimate moments.
Where’d you shoot?
We filmed entirely in Sunset Park and Bay Ridge Brooklyn. Sunset Park is a secret gem of a park where it overlooks lower Manhattan. It is split between a Chinese and Mexican neighborhood that creates a fascinating mixture of Chinese elders practicing Tai chi and singing as well as Mexican families playing soccer and selling ice cream and tacos.
Is the short Daud a scene from a longer feature, an outtake, a proof-of-concept short…?
The full idea was always to make a feature film called David. The following summer we did that, using the same main actor and some of the writing. We recently premiered at the Brooklyn Film Festival; on September 9th, we will be opening for a one week run at the Quad. We are partnering with organizations to create a week of events focusing on post-screening dialogues that deal with many of the themes of the film.
Was there anything you drew on for your depiction of the Muslim community in New York? How about when you were writing the character of Daud—a religious child is an interesting choice for a protagonist and I was wondering what you drew on for the characterization, and what the inspiration for the character was.
I was interested on focusing on a feeling that we all can relate to, the struggle to fit in. I think as kids we all so desperately want to blend in. It is not till later that we actually find being different as cool. Growing up in Miami, Jewish I could relate to that feeling of being different by not being Latino. I took that feeling and applied it to what I think is the more alienated culture of today, Muslims. In spending a year in Bay Ridge every so often, maybe every couple of months, I would see that one kid walking down the street wearing a full robe, with a Koran in his hand. I would think to myself, that is Daud!